Getting Serious About The Illegal Overfishing Of Tuna In The Mediterranean


Lee Crockett

Author(s) Description

Lee Crockett leads Pew’s efforts in Washington, D.C. to establish policies to
end overfishing and promote sustainable fisheries management.

Read the full
“Overfishing 101” series here.

Drift Net. Photo: Juan Cuetos/OceanaDriftnets sound
relatively harmless as a fishing method. But as any marine biologist will tell
you, this gear threatens ocean wildlife. At its November
meeting, however, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic
(ICCAT) could take steps to enforce current international prohibitions
on the usage of this damaging practice.

Held on the sea’s surface or just below with floating devices, driftnets can
be miles long. Depending on the size of the mesh, they can
entangle anything that happens to swim nearby, including sea turtles, whales,
swordfish, and tuna.

Banned But Still in Use

Most countries recognized that driftnets harm too many marine species (PDF) to remain an
acceptable form of fishing.
The United Nations banned them on the high
seas in 1993, and the European Union followed suit in 2002. In 2003, ICCAT
prohibited the use of driftnets to catch tuna and swordfish. Yet an active,
illegal driftnet fishery still exists in the Mediterranean, with Italy having
one of the largest fleets.

This illegal operation still exists because the European Union didn’t
ask Italy and others to halt driftnets outright
. Once the ban took
effect, rather than being sanctioned for their illegal driftnet activities,
these countries received large sums of money from national and EU funds to
convert to other fishing methods. Italian boat owners, captains, and crew
members received more than €100 million (US$136 million), and that’s when things
got complicated.

Italian law accounts for two types of driftnets. Spadare are
high-seas driftnets that have been banned by all international bodies active in
the Mediterranean, the EU, and, theoretically, Italy. Ferrettare were
originally designed as small-scale nets to catch nearshore species along the
Italian coast. In recent years, the mesh size has increased, enabling smaller
fish to pass through unharmed while conveniently—and illegally—catching
valuable Atlantic
bluefin tuna
and swordfish.

Various legal changes in Italy have also allowed ferrettare to be
used far beyond the coast. This facilitates the continued use of driftnets to
catch threatened species, despite numerous bans and the condemnation of the
international community.

For years, conservation groups documented the Italian fleet’s use of
driftnets to catch bluefin tuna, swordfish, and other vulnerable marine species.
From 2005 to the beginning of this year, more than 317 vessels were identified
as fishing illegally. Of these, 89 received funds from the EU and the Italian
government to convert to other fishing methods. Sanctions imposed by the Italian
government on these vessels have been described as “derisory” and inadequate.
They have had little or no effect on illegal activities and are seen by vessel
owners merely as an additional operating cost.

Getting Serious

Fishing Boat. Photo: María José Cornax / Oceana The
EU, though, seems finally to have had enough of this noncompliance
. In
Ponza, Italy, EU inspectors found driftnets on numerous fishing vessels, all
appearing significantly longer than the allowed length of ferrettare.
Local authorities told the inspectors that they had not conducted any onboard
investigations since the start of the driftnet season, even though the
vessels—with the illegal nets in plain sight—are moored approximately 100 yards
from the Italian coast guard’s offices.

In July, Italian media reported on a widespread, well-established operation
to falsify and avoid bluefin catch documents, which are meant to accompany
legally caught bluefin tuna through the market. Violations with potential fines
worth up to €3.6 million ($5 million) have been identified, and 70 wholesale and
retail operators are under investigation. Authorities suspect that much of the
tuna found through this operation was caught by driftnets.

Several steps must be taken to solve this issue. Loopholes in the
Italian law must be closed, and ferrettare must be prohibited
On September 21, because of pressure from the EU, Italy revised its regulations
for ferrettare, limiting their use to three miles from shore and reducing the
mesh size to four inches, but keeping the permitted length at 1.5 miles. This is
the latest attempt by the Italian ministry to avoid heavy sanctions that the EU
is threatening to apply. Given Italy’s record on enforcement, a more
straightforward solution would be to ban ferrettare outright.

On September 29, the EU announced it is beginning legal proceedings against
Italy for its continued use of illegal driftnets. This is encouraging, but the
EU should closely monitor Italy on this issue and take necessary action if no
adequate progress is made.
ICCAT must also take action. Member countries
should put Italian operators who have violated driftnet regulations on its
illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing vessel list. Identifying these
operations, in addition to the ferrettare ban, is a step in the right

Given the significant threats to marine life, this action is long


~ by narhvalur on October 13, 2011.

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